`Never been closer' to peace, Israelis and Palestinians say

Work delayed till vote in Barak-Sharon race

January 28, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Glossing over four months of bloodshed, top Israeli and Palestinian officials joined last night in declaring that they "have never been closer" to an accord that would finally allow their two peoples to coexist in peace.

Concluding six days of negotiations at an Egyptian Red Sea resort, the officials said they were halting work because they would not be able to finish a peace deal before Israel's prime ministerial elections Feb. 6.

But they said it was their "shared belief" that the remaining gaps could be bridged after the election. Meanwhile, they pledged a "return to normalcy and to a stable situation on the ground."

The statement was issued at an extraordinary joint news conference by Israel's foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Qurei.

Their televised appearance was clearly aimed at persuading Israel's voters to take a chance on a future of negotiated peace by re-electing Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It may be followed in a few days by a meeting in Europe between Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The striking Palestinian effort to boost Barak's political standing followed polls showing the prime minister almost certain to be defeated by his right-wing challenger, retired Gen. Ariel Sharon.

Despite their bitterness over weeks of violence that have claimed more than 350 lives, Palestinian leaders would much prefer to see Barak stay in power than have to face Sharon, whom they view as fiercely anti-Arab.

But their effort may have come too late to have any impact on Israel's voters, many of whom are convinced by now that Barak's quest for peace is hopeless and that Arafat cannot be trusted. These voters consider Arafat to have been the driving force behind the uprising that erupted Sept. 29.

The talks that ended at the Egyptian resort of Taba last night marked a last-ditch effort by Israelis and Palestinians to achieve some kind of understanding before the Israeli elections.

The negotiators gave the impression that they had overcome the distrust and bitterness that had marred relations since the failed Camp David summit in July.

The joint statement said the talks ended with a sense of "having succeeded in rebuilding trust between the sides and with the notion that they were never closer in reaching an agreement between them than today."

It said, "We leave Taba in a spirit of hope and mutual achievement acknowledging that the foundations have been laid both in re-establishing mutual confidence and having progressed in a substantive engagement on all core issues."

But their optimism was not supported by substantive results in any of the crucial subjects under discussion: the fate of Palestinian refugees, the sharing of Jerusalem, borders, dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and security.

And experience has shown that despite efforts to prevent violence, the Palestinian leadership cannot fully control the militias operating on the ground. New attacks would trigger Israeli retaliation, restarting a cycle of violence.

Ben-Ami declared, "We created a platform, a sound basis for an arrangement between us and the Palestinians." The two sides, he said, came closer "on some subjects - not on all subjects."

"There is still a big gap on everything," said Qurei, the Palestinian team leader. But, he added, "I'm sure that whatever we achieved will be the starting point of any new negotiations."

Intense efforts to reach an understanding on the refugee issue had failed, officials said. Palestinians demand that Israel recognize a "right of return" for up to 4 million refugees and their descendants. But Israel has refused, saying this would threaten the Jewish state's survival.

"Nothing had been achieved on the refugee issue," Qurei admitted. "This is a fierce battle, a battle which has two red lines - one set by us and, unfortunately, one set by them. If they will not recognize the right of return, there would be no progress."

According to Palestinian negotiators, the sides were close to a deal in which Israel would get about 4 percent of the West Bank and the Palestinians would receive some Israeli territory in return.

The fate of Jerusalem, Israel's proclaimed unified capital, presented a more serious problem. Israel is reluctant to give the Palestinians what they want there - full control over the city's eastern Arab part, which includes sites holy to both Judaism and Islam.

Qurei said the issue of Jerusalem was discussed for the first time in detail, with the Palestinians demanding that Israel also dismantle satellite towns around Jerusalem built on Palestinian land. In security talks, the Palestinians rejected Israeli demands for control over their air space and for military outposts in the Jordan Valley, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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